Book Review: Visions in a Seer Stone: Joseph Smith and the Making of the Book of Mormon

Cover, Vision in a Seer Stone

Title: Visions in a Seer Stone: Joseph Smith and the Making of the Book of Mormon by William Davis, Published by the University of North Carolina Press
Genre: History
Year Published: 2020
Pages: 250
Binding: Cloth, Paper, eBook
ISBN: Cloth, 978-1-4696-5565-9; Paper, 978-1-4696-5566-6; eBook, 978-1-4696-5567-3
Price: Cloth, 90.00; Paper, 29.95; eBook, 22.99

The 21st century is a culture saturated in the written word. We are surrounded by books, magazines, and newspapers, we read and write blogs, we spend hours sharing and typing posts on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, we self-publish books through Amazon, we type messages through various instant messenger apps, and on top of all that, many people don’t even talk into their phones any more, they type into them.  The early 19th century however, was largely an oral culture. Where we moderns learn at an early age how to transmit knowledge and stories in written form, people in the time of Joseph Smith learned early on how to tell stories and become master’s of the spoken word.  In his introduction to Visions in a Seer Stone William Davis explains:

Smith lived in a time and place marked by a rich variety of oral presentations shaped by the technologies of the era, the dynamic relationship between orality and print culture, and the paramount role of public speaking in the cultural imagination of the people. Whether at home, school, church, work, or any number of other social and civic gatherings, cultural institutions in postrevolutionary America taught, developed, and encouraged oratorical skills at a level unparalleled in twenty-first-century American practices. (p. 2)

After this brief introduction to the oral culture of Smith’s time, Davis states the main thesis of Visions:

Evidence of Smith’s nineteenth-century oratorical culture emerges frequently in the pages of the Book of Mormon, prompting questions about the discursive dynamics that link Smith’s performance to the historical milieu from which the text emerged. Because the key mode of its creation was the spoken word, the Book of Mormon might best be described as a script, or a transcript, of Smith’s performative process—the artifact of a grander, multifaceted oratorical effort. (p.2)

While Davis is certainly not the first person to suggest that the Book of Mormon is a product of the 19th century, he is the first to tie it’s production directly to the oral culture of Smith’s day and provide extensive evidence for Smith’s experience in and use of that culture in his preaching and writing.  One of the things that I enjoyed most about reading Visions is that I believe that Davis succeeded in providing and analyzing evidence of his thesis in a scholarly fashion, while composing a readable book that can be appreciated by both believers and non-believers in the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith.

Visions is divided into an introduction, seven chapters and an epilogue.  After establishing his thesis in the introduction and discussing Joseph Smith’s use of seer stones in chapter one, Davis provides an extensive exploration of early 19th century oral culture as a method of passing on stories and information in chapters two through four.  A major focus in these chapters is a “method of using a preliminary outline” known as “laying down heads.” Davis explains that this was a technique used by speakers and writers to:

designate and arrange the main topics of such compositions as sermons, public speeches, essays, narrations, and school lessons. 

“Laying down heads” was an approach that involved two steps that allowed speakers and writers to prepare for long speeches, sermons, and for writing while using no notes. Davis explains that this process involved the speaker or author creating a:

skeletal outline of his or her intended composition by using a sequence of key phrases (“heads”) that concisely summarized each of the main topics, issues, or divisions of an idea contained within the overall passage that followed. [Then] using this skeletal outline as a reference guide, the speaker or author would then elaborate on each key phrase, expanding it into a fully developed passage of oral address or text. (p. 16, parenthetical statement in the original text)

In these chapters Davis gives a multitude of examples of how this technique was taught and used in the early 19th century, and explains how and where Joseph Smith and his family would have learned and been exposed to it.  Then he demonstrates how Smith used this oral technique of “laying down heads” when composing his 1832 personal history, in an 1843 sermon on “the Prodigal Son”, and he dedicates chapter four to explaining how it was used by Smith in his famous “King Follett Sermon.” This is where things got really interesting for me. As he is discussing Smith’s 1832 history and the 1843 sermon, Davis demonstrates how these “Preliminary heads” were included in the 1812 edition of Daniel Defoe’s The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. He then quotes the “Head” and first line from chapter one of the 1812 edition of Crusoe. I was already enjoying reading Visions, but this is what really sucked me in and got me fascinated by Davis’s thesis because as I read those lines from Crusoe they not only compared to the “Heads” Smith used in his history, it felt like I was reading the opening introduction to and first line of First Nephi chapter one (“An account of Lehi and his wife Sariah,” to “I Nephi having been born of goodly parents”). The similarities are amazing (see pp. 17-19).    

After the setup and background provided in chapters one through four, Davis then uses chapters five through seven to show how he believes that Smith used this oral culture technique of “laying down heads” both in the Book of Mormon narrative text and in its creation. Chapter five, “Sermon Culture in the Book of Mormon” is very interesting.  In it, Davis provides an extensive analysis of sermons in the Book of Mormon and shows how “heads” were used in the sermons of Jacob, Mormon, Alma, and others. This would be a great chapter to use as a study guide alongside a copy of the Book of Mormon. If you do so it will provide new insights to the sermons of the Book of Mormon, their breakdown, and construction. 

In chapter six, “Constructing Book of Mormon Historical Narratives”, Davis provides a number of compelling examples, evidences, and comparisons to show how the Book of Mormon fits as a 19th century composition and where Smith may have gotten some of his inspiration when he was composing the text.  The whole chapter is good, but I found a couple of Davis’s arguments to be especially persuasive. Early in the chapter he demonstrates how Smith’s construction of the Book of Mormon seems to attempt “to imitate the textual and editorial apparatus found in many Bibles of the early nineteenth century” (p. 124).  He then quotes chapter summaries for the Biblical Book of Genesis from Adam Clarke’s Commentary of the Bible, a set of volumes that Joseph Smith is known to have had access to.  As with the “heads” used in “Crusoe,” reading these chapter summaries felt like reading the Book of Mormon, their diction and style are almost exactly the same.  After reading these examples, when Davis states of Smith, “Whatever his specific model, Smith mimics this contemporary form of biblical apparatus in an apparent attempt to duplicate the same pedagogical effect and further to lend authoritative weight to the text of the Book of Mormon” it is easy to believe him (p. 125). 

The other focus in chapter six that especially caught my interest was when Davis addressed the opening summaries that appear at the beginning of select books and narratives in the Book of Mormon text. Davis explains that scholars such as Nibley and Tvedtnes referred to these sections of text as “ancient colophons” before showing how their explanation for the inclusion of these pieces of text in the Book of Mormon does not work. He also demonstrates how they do fit into a 19th century context (see especially pp. 125-129).

Visions concludes with chapter seven, “A Theory of Translation”, and a brief epilogue.  In this conclusion to the book, Davis summarizes his theories of how Smith used 19th century oral culture and “laying down heads” to compose the Book of Mormon. He then returns the reader to Smith’s use of Seer Stones and connects their use to Smith’s use of oral culture in composing the Book of Mormon. He also provides more information on how Smith could have used Adam Clarke’s Commentary when composing the Book of Mormon and answers potential challenges to his theories from the accounts of the Book of Mormon translation that were given by Emma Hale Smith and David Whitmer.  I know that I am using this word a lot, but this is all really quite fascinating!

I don’t have any serious criticisms for Visions, but I do have a question about a decision in relation to the book that I do not understand.  The title of Davis’s book is Visions in A SEER STONE. With a title like that, you might expect that a major part of the book would be about Joseph Smith using seer stones.  The first chapter, which has the title “Seer Stones and Western Esotericism” certainly is. A major focus of chapter one is “Esotericism in the Smith Household.” It is a marvelous and informative chapter in which Davis gives readers a concise history and context for the magical beliefs and Western Esotericism of the 19th century “Burned-Over District” and of the Smith household in particular.  Based in part on the 1870 Fayette Lapham interview, chapter one details “the Smith family’s preoccupation with mystical practices”, their interest in “treasure hunting” and its “required elaborate mystical ceremonies”, the eighteen plus treasure quests that Joseph Jr. was involved in, and the various forms of divination the Smith family members preferred and were involved in.  Davis describes these as the:

complex entanglement of religious and mystical ideologies became the Smith family’s way of life, constructing a cultural and perceptual lens through which they would view and interpret the world (see pp 7-13).

But then, despite the expectations of the title of the book, after page 13, seer stones don’t come up again until a brief mention on page 120, with the next major discussion of them being nearly at the end of the book on pages 170 to 178.  Understand, I am not criticizing the book, its content, or Davis’s writing.  The book is fascinating and I learned a lot by reading it.  I’m just questioning the book’s title. Seer stones are the focus of approximately 20 of the book’s 196 pages of text.  Most of the rest of the book focuses on Smith’s use of the oral culture of his day to compose the Book of Mormon. Calling the book, Visions in a Seer Stone when the discussion of seer stone use makes up about 10% of the text feels a bit like going to a feature film called Batman where Batman is only in the film for ten minutes.  I enjoyed the book and recommend it, but if you are expecting a book that focuses on Joseph Smith’s esoteric use of seer stones to produce the Book of Mormon text, that is not the book that you are getting. 

At the beginning of Visions final chapter Davis makes this statement:

“While ‘defenders of the faith’ and ‘critics of the church’ will no doubt continue to debate the historical authenticity of the text, I believe that the academic study of the Book of Mormon finds a much more productive focus when shifting to a position that seeks to understand what Smith himself thought about his project and how his personal beliefs and practices informed the production of the work” (p. 160).

Due to the strong feelings that people have for and against Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, pulling off a productive, academic study of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, and what he believed can be a difficult thing to do. Providing a new or refocused academic paradigm for how Smith composed the Book of Mormon is even more difficult.  But Davis has pulled it off, Visions in a Seer Stone is an excellent and important addition to Mormon studies.  Davis’s theory that Joseph Smith was able to produce the Book of Mormon through his use of 19th century oral performance techniques that he would have learned through his culture and attendance at Methodist meetings is intriguing and deserving of further consideration and study.  If you want to gain greater insights into the Book of Mormon’s production and its connections to the19th century America, then read Visions in a Seer Stone: Joseph Smith and the Making of the Book of Mormon.


Book Review: Visions in a Seer Stone: Joseph Smith and the Making of the Book of Mormon — 7 Comments

  1. An important addendum to this lovely review:
    Davis beautifully adds to, but certainly doesn’t initiate, the conversation about orality and aurality in early Mormon history. Scholars such as Sharon Harris, Peter McMurray, Daymon Smith, Mike Hicks, Ben Peters, and John Durham Peters (among others) have been tilting an ear toward the vocal and sonic origins of Mormonism and The Book of Mormon for some time now. My own work also theorizes voice in Mormonism, which I call a “theology of voice.” These are important points that Davis and others are making: the fact of voice is central and unavoidable in Mormonism. What we think we know of its history and practice come to be wholly imagined anew when we actually enact what the BoM asks of us: to listen to it more often.

  2. Unfortunately for the theory, this oral technique using loci mnemonic devices is far from unique to Joseph Smith’s melieu, having a prominent place in Hebrew, Greek and Latin oratory and texts developed from such oratory or oral sermon techniques. Check Virgil, Cicero, the Deuteronomist, Romans and other sources for prominent examples.

    Many of the so-called “heads” in the Book of Mormon are based on words that are are natural word-pairs or parallel terms used in Hebrew. It would have as easily been expected of an ancient writer recounting sermons as anyone in Joseph smith’s day. I get the idea that Davis merely lacked a thorough knowledge of use of these techniques in the ancient cultures and thought that he was identifying something that is not rather ubiquitous and common to a number of times and cultures. So I do not think that Davis’s thesis moves us forward much as much as you augur regarding composition of the Book of Mormon.

  3. Unfortunately, Ostler, the specific form of extempore preaching, sin-deliverance-service structure, etc., that Davis’s book points to specifically developed—based on Cicero and Roman oratory and rhetoric—after the Protestant Reformation and especially during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Im glad that you pointed us to the obvious, but Davis already responded to this misreading in the book itself.

  4. Schmee: Interesting comment that is totally inaccurate. Davis does not mention or quote Cicero (or any other Greek or Roman orator). Nor does he mention or quote any Roman oratory devices — let alone the development and use in Jewish culture and biblical texts. Not only does David not respond to such a “misreading” he shows no evidence or awareness at all of the same structures in undeniably ancient texts. He does focus on Presbyterian and Methodist oratory — but shows little awareness of similar uses in several forms of Jewish literature.

    That said I did not find his evidence particular persuasive. In most instances where express headings of topics are not involved, Davis gives very short introductory phrases and then hypothesizes that greatly expanded textual material is somehow cued by the short phrase (with almost all of the text actually not prefigured in any way). His evidence is simply not persuasive regarding that claim. He even goes so far as to argue that prophetic visions of the future in 1 Nephi provide an outline for the rest of the Book of Mormon– apparently unaware that 1 Nephi was dictated AFTER the Words of Mormon to Moroni.

    Davis argues against the evidence IMO that Joseph Smith must have had written materials and certainly must have had a KJV that he read. I just find that discussion in the book particularly unpersuasive and contrary to virtually everyone who saw Joseph translate. His claim that Emma Smith was not present during parts of the dictation is particularly tendentious and contrary to the evidence. He has to explain away statements by Emma Smith to make his theory work — but he has to essentially call Emma a liar and disregard the fact that she was Joseph’ scribe at times. I didn’t find Davis’s arguments in that regard at all persuasive. His reliance on the accounts of David Whitmer (that are very open to question on many counts) to call Emma a liar is simply irresponsible in my view.

    The worst argument is that Joseph’s use of the legally required term “Author and Proprietor) to indicate authorship was laughable.

  5. Blake Ostler: at some point in the future, I plan to post an essay that clarifies some of the common misreadings and misinterpretations of my work. At present, I intend to respond exclusively to published reviews. If you would like to gather your thoughts and publish them as a book review or response piece (The Interpreter would seem to be the most obvious venue for your particular style and concerns), then I would consider incorporating your views into my thoughts on what my research actually says, opposed to some of the misreadings that are floating around the web.